"What's blowing up?" asks Craig Kallman, scanning a daunting wall-to-wall array of twelve-inch singles by new hip-hop acts. Kallman, a Boy Scoutish 33-year-old raised on the Upper East Side, is quizzing the homeboy clerk at Fat Beats on lower Sixth Avenue, one of the city's dozen or so independent record shops that Kallman cruises every Saturday morning.
"We sell a lot of both of these," says the clerk, handing over singles by groups called Rankoticks and Black Attack.
Kallman scans the labels for any useful factoids, then has the clerk plop them on the in-store turntables. He cocks his head, half listening as he continues to pluck records from bins and racks. Walking out fifteen minutes later with $200 worth of music, Kallman says, "Mostly D.J.'s shop in this store. If you're a young kid, how many of these can you afford?"
Kallman has been haunting stores like this since he was a teenager at Trinity School and a D.J. at the legendary Danceteria; a dedicated follower of everything from hip-hop to schlock pop, he owns 50,000 records.
But unlike most music wonks who malinger with record-store workers, Kallman has a broader purpose: He's trolling for a hit for Atlantic Records, where he has worked for eight years. He will spend the next day in his apartment, surfing through these purchases and demo tapes culled by his staff, looking for any raw element -- producer, rapper, vocalist, songwriter, remixer -- to turn into commercial gold. It's exhausting, but the payoff can be huge, as it was when he hooked up then-unknown producer Timbaland with black teen idol Aaliyah; the resulting One in a Million went triple-platinum.
Last year, Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun named Kallman executive vice-president, putting him in charge of the label's A&R (artists and repertoire) department, where he oversees the signing and development of every act on the venerable 50-year-old label except the country ones. His taste -- as exemplified by Atlantic's two current top 10 albums, Brandy's Never Say Never and the soundtrack from Dr. Dolittle -- will now be steering Atlantic into the millennium.
Today he directs his Town Car east to Other Music, the alternative-music store across from Tower Records, where section titles include das krautrock, la decadanse, and psychedelia. Kallman pulls aside co-owner Chris Vanderloo, who passes along some recommendations: the Clears, from Memphis, "very late-eighties, New Wave?sounding"; the rootsy Nebraska band Lullaby for the Working Class; a solo album from the woman in Flying Saucer Attack; a folk-tech act from Sweden called Friend.
Kallman drops another $250 and is driven next to Sonic Groove, a narrow shop on Carmine Street devoted almost entirely to "trance music" -- harder-edge industrial electronica. After the success of Prodigy, Kallman thinks the next big crossover will be a band that melds electronica with some real rock songs. He lost just such a band, Stroke, to Interscope and wants the next one badly.
He scrutinizes the racks of anonymous album covers by bands with names like Stumplank, E Flame & Mr. G., Proton Beams. "I never heard of them; they're all kids," Kallman marvels. "There could be one genius in the 500. It's like the needle in the haystack."
He approaches the close-shaved clerk behind the counter -- one of the few in today's tour whom Kallman doesn't know -- and asks, "What's selling?"
"What category?" the clerk shoots back. "Hard techno? House?"
"What's the next Aphex Twin, coming up from the underground?" Kallman replies. "Something that you think could sell."
"We don't carry anything commercial," the clerk practically sneers. "I'll give you a bunch of stuff to listen to."
Kallman carries it over to a turntable and skips around different tracks, trying to find something catchy. It's all just drones -- tape loops, drum machines, lulling grooves. "Nothing!" Kallman says. "This sounds like the death of club music to me. There's no melody, music, song, vocalist. We're now at the point where an entire store can exist, selling records -- a record store without a single song in it."
He laughs, then frowns. "Either that, or I'm really getting out of touch."